Courting Popularity

 

POPULIST! This is the political vogue word of the moment, a pejorative appellation presently in common use especially in the media. President Trump, the Brexit vote, both are cited examples of what is being cast as a growing tendency.

Yet the word has a more honourable past. It referred to a member of the People’s Party, founded in 1891. It had a social agenda, championing public ownership of public services and graduated income tax.

It was a manifestation in the USA of the then emerging social democratic trend represented in Britain by the Labour Representation Committee, the Independent Labour Party leading to the founding of the Labour Party.

Whatever the political strengths and weaknesses, being a populist was not deserving of the opprobrium associated with the word today. Indeed, the basic populist principle was advocating the right and ability of the common people to govern themselves.

Replace the phrase “common people” with working class and there is the essential element of socialism, the working class acting politically for itself.

So what has happened to turn populism into a reactionary tendency? The problem lies not in any particular manifesto, but in the actual principle of courting popular support. This is denial of the working class acting for itself.

Instead, the “common people” play a passive role. A political programme, radical or otherwise, is concocted by a party standing apart. There may indeed be working people involved in that party, but it is a small self-selected group deeming itself to know what’s best for the masses.

The aim is to elicit widespread support for a pre-formed programme devoid of popular input. The only role for the electorate is to vote for it and trust the party will act on their behalf. In this sense, all parties putting themselves forward for election are populist.

A current example is the Scottish Nationalist Party seizing on EU referendum vote running counter to the overall British vote. Popular discontent is to be exploited for the sectional interests of the SNP, turning the voters’ gaze away from rather more pressing economic and social problems to which the SNP do not have answers.

The Green Party in Scotland, seeing an opportunity to raise its profile, is tailing along behind the SNP, hoping to gain some popular kudos. This is where the populist motivation is problematic. Whatever its intent, it serves the political interests of capitalism by limiting the political interests of the working class.

Issues become binary: for or against independence, leaving or staying in the EU, Labour or Conservative and so on and on… And the only role for the working class, the electorate, is to choose one of the other. Proportional representation or transferable vote systems are merely variations on this essentially passive process.

A true populism must involve the working class organising itself through its own political institutions to determine how its best interests can be served. Democracy requires the popular acceptance of responsibility for playing an active part.

Otherwise it’s merely howling at and voting for selected performers strutting about the parliamentary stage in “Westminster’s Got Talent”, a popular show for the moment, until those merely watching on realise they could act for themselves.

 

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Take Me To Your Leader?

 

It was a popular trope in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The flying saucer has landed, a subtle mechanism whirrs as a panel in the seemingly unblemished hull lifts revealing a portal. From the shadowy interior steps a green bug-eyed creature/silver suited figure who in perfectly enunciated (probably American) English demands, “Take me to you leader!”

The context for this B movie/pulp fiction was a mix of the beginnings of space exploration in the setting of the cold war. It also reveals the persistence of the concept of THE LEADER. Such a leader might be either malevolent or benign, or an amalgam of both, depending on perspective.

Hitler and Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt were both still fresh in popular consciousness, each considered to have played crucial roles that determined how the lives of whole populations were to be led.

Today the fascination with leadership remains: if only the right one could be promoted, or so it seems. Leaders can be characterised or stigmatised by a single word such as populist. In a democratic sense a popular leader is good, surely? Perhaps not when populist is characterised as pandering to the base instincts of the barely politically literate proles.

So, efforts need to be made to select the good leader to carry society forwards, or such is the implication. The problem, though, is not some perceived stupidity of the proles who are in this usage a sub-section of the working class.

Proles, of course, is merely an abbreviation of proletarians, a word not much in common parlance these days. It does not, however, refer to a section of the working class, but to the class in its entirety, a class to which the overwhelming majority of the population belong.

Working class/proletarian is defined by relationship to the means of wealth creation, a relationship of subservience. Not possessing the means to create wealth, this class must sell the only thing it does own, its labour power.

Labour power is the element required by the exceedingly small minority who do own and control the means of wealth production. Those means remain useless without the necessary labour power to activate them. No labour power – no wealth.

If the means of wealth production was taken into the ownership of the working class, then members of that class would collectively possess all the elements required to produce for the needs of society, a socialist society.

Therefore, what’s required is a socialist leader, right? Wrong! The very concept of such a leader is contrary to socialism. Leadership in this sense requires the working class to be passive, taking no responsibility for its own interests beyond marking a cross on a ballot paper.

Leaders are a capitalist phenomenon. No matter how sincere they may be in wishing to enact radical change, they can only do so with the confines set by capitalist necessity to pursue profit. As socialism will be the abolition of the profit motive no leader can be in such a position.

The working class is the only force that can bring socialism about on its own behalf. Those political groups who style themselves socialist continue the process of delusion by promoting support for a “socialist leader/party” such as Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

It matters not one jot how sincere Corbyn is, no one is capable of acting on behalf of the working class, the class must act for itself. The only proper leadership socialists can offer is the true meaning of education, that is, to lead out, bring forth the potential, presently latent, in the working class to liberate itself from capitalism.

 

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Nationalism – Scotch Mystification

 

The First Minister of the Scottish Parliament announces a second referendum on independence. The justification cited being the prior vote to leave the EU and the frustration of Scotland’s majority desire to retain membership.

As EU membership and referendum refers to Britain as a whole the outcome of the ballot must also be determined in that context. Such a vote was always going to produce regional variations, but that cannot then justify those areas in the overall minority camp seceding.

The problem lies with the binary nature of plebiscites. Complex political and economic matters are reduced to a simplistic “YES” or “NO”. Such can be employed on single issue questions, like the one presently facing many teachers.

Two teachers’ unions, the ATL and NUT, are balloting there members as to whether or not they should amalgamate. They either will or they won’t and so teachers can vote either “YES” or “NO”, there being a single question.

The relationship between member states of an economic, and increasingly political, union has a multiplicity of facets. So many that most were simply not addressed during the EU referendum campaign.

Instead, both sides simplified to the point where the electorate was provided with little, if any, useful information on which a rational choice could be made. The result was that many voted according to their own pet prejudices.

Those favouring immigration were countered by others who against it. Some saw the EU as a guarantor of their rights, many thought their rights were regularly infringed. Did the EU fund valuable local projects or drain money from the economy?

There was also a significant element of apparently voting against a political establishment seen as self-serving rather than meeting popular needs. What was actually taking place was a settling of scores between contending capitalist camps expressed through that political establishment.

There can surely be no doubt that the triumphant “Brexiteers” in the Theresa May administration are as viciously Tory as the previous Cameron one. The Labour Party remains supine, failing in the primary role of an opposition, to oppose.

Then there’s the socialist and communist parties and groups who also campaigned to leave and so played their part, however insignificant, in strengthening popular ideological adherence to capitalist political norms, while effectively aligning themselves with the Tory government.

This has now been exacerbated by the SNP seizing its opportunistic moment to try and bolster its waning support now it no longer commands an overall majority in the Scottish parliament. To do so it is more than willing to promote the dangerous mystification of a “Braveheart” nationalism.

For as long as people consciously or unconsciously continue to subscribe to a political system evolved to maintain capitalism, they must bear the consequences. Their interests are not being served because capitalism by its very nature cannot meet popular needs.

How an outcome from a referendum is deployed to give credence to a particular policy is demonstrated by what’s followed from the EU vote. It is a commonplace now for “Brexiteers” to declare the “LEAVE” vote is the will of the people.

It was, of course, nothing of the sort. Although there was a small majority who voted for “LEAVE”, there were in fact two minorities. The one voting “STAY” and the other that did not cast a vote. Together they form a rather larger majority that did not vote to leave the EU.

The non-voters cannot be dismissed as apathetic or non-participants because not voting was actually the only rational choice open to the electorate. Deprived of useful information, with no way of knowing what the outcome might be of leaving or staying, a snub to both sides made perfect sense.

The same applies to a Scottish independence vote. Love of the Union? Hatred of the English? Prospering in the EU? A minor region on the fringes of the EU, if allowed to join? No one can know. These and many other pertinent issues will not be adequately addressed, so people can only cast a partial vote at best.

Whichever way such plebiscites go capitalism will retain its dominance and the vast majority will have to deal with consequences of that. There will certainly not be a referendum on seceding capitalism.

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Class Room for Business

 

Capitalism becomes ever more blatant in its direction of education towards its own advantage. When, in the late nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, the requirement for an educated workforce became urgent, the state was charged with meeting that need.

The organisation of schools largely reflected industrial arrangements of the day, with reforms enacted as capitalism altered its working practices. This remained the case up to the latter end of the last century.

Then, under Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments, the state began to be incrementally withdrawn in favour of edu-businesses, capitalism realising the possibility of directly profiting from education.

Testing students is promoted as a clear way to promote ever improving standards in schools. Behind this dissembling veneer is the reduction of education to quantifiable data. The tests and subsequent data analysis has become big business in its own right.

Increasingly, this testing is becoming computerised, opening schools as markets for IT hard and soft ware. Recent estimates suggest this worldwide market is worth around 9 billion dollars, and growing.

Therefore, the appointment of Amanda Spielman as Ofsted chief executive and Chief Inspector of Schools makes perfect sense. That she has no educational background other than her own – she’s never worked in schools or any other related area coming under the aegis of Ofsted – does not disqualify her it seems.

She is an accountant by profession and associated with Ark (Absolute return for kids), an academy chain. Spielman worked in investment strategy for Kleinwort Benson, KPMG and Nomura, before becoming research and development director for Ark.

Whilst advisor to Ark’s international division she also chaired Ofqual, the qualification body that was cited for its failings during her time. It’s hardly surprising the House of Commons Education Select Committee found itself unable to support her appointment.

So, raising standards or raising profits? To which does the evidence point?

 

 

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The Pearl

 

The victory of Alexander Van der Bellen over Norbert Hofer in the Austrian presidential election was greeted with relief by leading lights in the EU political establishment and many parts of the media. A seemingly unstoppable tide favouring right wing populists had been turned back by a candidate described as left leaning.

Left leaning is political code for liberal and Bellen’s Green credentials confirmed his place on the bourgeois political spectrum. Hofer, in turn, was regularly described as “far right”, political code for racist nationalist tending towards fascism.

The irony is the very establishment that greeted, indeed celebrated, Hofer’s defeat is the EU nomenclature, a body united by the aim of constructing a pan-European corporate state. Fascism has moved on in its service to capitalism: no more Nuremburg Rallies, uniforms and jackboots, rather it’s sharp suits and soft shoes.

To be clear, fascism is the ideology of the corporate state, a comprehensive state that deals with all aspects of economic, social and political life in a unitary manner. It is the guarantor of free markets and workers’ rights, allowing for no contradiction.

Political elites have been taking something of a beating through 2016 as people have used their votes to signal their mounting discontent. What this reflects is workers as a class in itself reacting against the austerity imposed since the 2008 financial crash.

There’s a generalised awareness that things aren’t as they might be, but the atomized nature of society means people identify specific symptoms – national sovereignty, immigration, out of touch politicians etc., as the problem. So, that’s what they vote on.

As yet workers are not united as a class for itself, acting collectively in their common best interest, identifying the source of the symptoms, capitalism. Indeed, anything more radical than left leaning – Van der Bellen, Bernie Saunders, Jeremy Corbyn – has a collective deaf ear turned towards it.

Except in the fantastic political world of the Daily Mail, Marxists exert little of no influence in society. They do not run the BBC, or the Labour Party, or the Trade Unions, although many think the opposite which shows the Mail has more clout than the socialist press.

Until workers act as a class for itself, accept responsibility for confronting the actuality of capitalism and then transcending it to achieve socialism, then voting will change little. Whichever way the EU referendum had gone, capitalism was still in charge. The same with Trump, with Van der Bullen, with the recent vote in Italy.

For the moment Marxists can be little more than the irritating grit in the capitalist oyster until the working class decides the time is right to take the plunge and prise the pearl of socialism from the empty shell of capitalism.

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Fidel Castro

 

Today brings the interment of Fidel Castro’s ashes following the triumph of the urn around Cuba. Those who mourned and those who celebrated his death had one point of agreement, that Castro’s legacy is socialism.

As has been repeatedly stated in the media, Castro denied communism in the early days of the revolution. It was in the face of US hostility that he turned to the Soviet Union and publicly embraced Marxism/Leninism.

As history shows he had allied himself with losing side in the Cold War, a choice that left Cuba bankrupt and isolated by America’s insistence on maintaining the economic blockade. So, is Cuba a bastion of socialism defying its imperialist near neighbour?

From 1st January 1959 when the 26th July Movement vanquished the Batista regime and entered Havana there have been significant advances. The mafia economy based on gambling and prostitution was swept away.

Unfortunately, that removed lucrative sources of income and the aggressive opposition of the USA pushed Castro towards Moscow. In 1960, the USSR agreed to buy Cuban sugar at a high price. This was followed by interest free loans that Castro hoped would finance development.

This was merely a loss leader, as the USSR soon began imposing 2.5% interest on the loans and demanding that 80% of any aid money was spent on commodities from the Soviet Union. These were priced at between 10% and 50% more than equivalents on western markets.

There followed economic plans, mainly centred around sugar, with increased production targets that were never met. By the 1970s the plans had failed leaving a $6 billion debt to the USSR. At the same time Soviet Union support for Cuba was running at approximately $3 million a day.

Undoubtedly, the health and education systems developed in Cuba were exemplary, but both were, and remain, expensive, even more so with the demise of the USSR and its financial aid. The Cuban economy inevitably struggled.

Tourism has become a major source of income with the added benefit that Cuba is so well visited it has become very difficult for the USA to maintain the island’s pariah status. An ironic effect of tourism has been the return of prostitution, an indication of dire economic circumstances.

Cuba may continue to declare itself socialist, no doubt this will be the proclaimed legacy of Fidel. Except Cuba is not socialist, it is economically, and therefore socially, divided. Since the mid-1990s holding hard currency has been legal, placing those few Cubans who’ve acquired it in a different class to the rest.

The sources of that hard currency are dubiously obscure. But what exacerbates the situation is that most Cubans receive their rations via ration cards while the “comandantes” such as Fidel and brother Raul were not so constrained.

Foreign firms hiring Cuban labour do not pay their workers directly, paying the state instead. The workers themselves receive only a portion of those payments. This is hardly socialism, but rather the arrangements of capitalism.

It may well be the Fidel and his comrades sincerely thought they could build socialism in Cuba, there may be those who consider Cuba to be in some sort of transitory state on the way to socialism. However, the economic arrangements are purely capitalist with the state acting as a capitalist state whatever it intends or believes about itself.

China has become the new sugar-daddy without whose patronage Cuba would have become utterly bankrupt and the regime passed away long before Fidel. To insist otherwise is to deny reality, turning socialism into a faith celebrating its Messiahs while the workers remain exploited.

The progression of the relic around Cuba is over. It seems that Fidel has asked that no memorial be erected in his honour. So now is the time to realise there are no single country easy routes to socialism, nor can it be delivered by inspired leaders. It is for workers to accept responsibility for acting on their own behalf.

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Children in Need

 

 

Friday 18th November was “Children in Need”, the five and a half hours the BBC devotes to its annual fund- raising event, what used to be called a telethon. Celebrity celebrating its own self-importance and collective moral conscience.

It would not be popular to take issue with such an event. As was written in the “Radio Times for that day, “…there’s really no excuse for forgetting what this is all about – raising money for a worthy cause.”

After all it’s for children who are sick, deprived, who are carers for invalid parents, whom life has treated badly. There can be no doubt whatsoever that many, many children, here and abroad, exist in such desperate circumstances.

The question, however, is should disadvantaged children have to depend on charity. However glitzy it now is this remains essentially a hangover from the harsh days of Victorian capitalism, when the great and the good salved their consciences through dispensing alms to the deserving poor.

By focusing on children there can be no question as to their being deserving and as an institution its origins are not that far removed from Victorian times. “Children in Need” is the present incarnation of an appeal begun in the early days of the BBC.

There is an irony in the mascot, Pudsey bear, being one-eyed. There is not a clear vision as to why the event is still needed. Having been repeated over decades it obviously is not dealing with the central issue, that there are children having to cope with dreadful circumstances that society generally ignores apart from one day a year.

No one, celebrity or otherwise, publicly asks the question, “Why does society not meet the needs of all its children?” The answer is that those children are not profitable. In a system which is driven by the profit motive, channelling significant wealth to those children would mean subtracting it from the sum total of profits.

As a charity appeal solicits money from the general population, it is collected from the purses and wallets of workers whose salaries and wages have already been paid out and therefore accounted for by the economics of capitalism. It is not a further drain on potential profit.

What “Children in Need” does positively demonstrate is that the working class has a social conscience, that human beings are not just driven by personal greed and self-interest. It also shows an intrinsic understanding that people, children or adults, have different needs that should be catered for, which can be met according to the ability to contribute.

Put simply, it is a demonstration of humanity as social, co-operative beings. If this was to be translated into establishing socialism, whereby the principle of from each according to ability, to each according to need was the norm, there would be no requirement for charity.

“Children in Need” has taken place exactly a week before “Black Friday” when the worst of capitalism is manifested through frenzied consumption. The amounts of money involved will make the funds raised by Pudsey seem miniscule in comparison. Why turn a blind eye to this?

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